The Value of Debate

The foundation of any civil society is its ability to wrestle corporately with challenging problems and arrive at amicable solutions. This is what set the Constitution of the newly formed United States of America apart. The Constitution provided a democratic form of government, a structure for polity, commerce, and protection, while acknowledging that it was not perfect and therefore providing a means by which it might improved, amended.

At the heart of that process of reflection and improvement is debate. To many people, debate is about takings sides and digging in, entrenching oneself so deeply that it is often impossible to peer over the berm to see those on the other side. The model of debate seen on television through news channels and political debates is too often about reassuring those who already agree with the speaker (while taking digs at the opponent) with little effort expended to educate and persuade the audience of the merits of the argument.

The Oxford-style Debate model is different. It is competitive, with its roots in the Oxford Union's debate club, but is focused upon convincing the audience of the value of their point of view rather than denigrating their opponent. The process begins with a published motion in the form of "This house believes…" and upon arrival, guests vote for or against the motion. Then the two teams follow a prescribed format, starting with the team that is for the motion and allowing time for questions from the floor. Each side is seeking to persuade audience members who may have initially opposed their side to reconsider, or consider in a new light, the merits of their claim. In the end, the audience will vote again. The team that "wins" is the one that has the moved the most people from their prior position.

For (a silly) example, the motion might be "The House believes that vanilla is the best flavor of ice cream." The audience might begin with a vote of only 15 percent in favor of the motion (and 85 percent against). At the end of the debate, the vote might now be 20 percent in favor of the motion (that vanilla is the best flavor of ice cream) and 80 percent against. The majority still does not prefer vanilla, but the "Pro motion" team persuaded more people of their position and therefore "won" the debate. The value of this form of debate is that it elevates persuasion and reason.

The faculty and students of the Lewis Honors College are proud to bring Oxford-style debate to the University of Kentucky with our first debate on Sept. 20 at 7 p.m. in Memorial Hall. The motion is:

This house believes that the Second Amendment should be amended.

There is no question that gun violence and the availability of guns in our society is of pressing concern to us all. Yet there are few other issues quite as divisive in communities today. One way of looking differently at this topic is from within the Constitutional framework itself. If there is so little agreement about how the Second Amendment should be interpreted then perhaps it should be amended or repealed. Our Constitution provides for this because the Nation's Founders knew such concerns would arise. So we are able to amend the Second Amendment. Should we? That is the motion that will be under debate.

What makes the Oxford-style debate such a great model, particularly in this case, is that it allows for people who have differing views on gun ownership to be on the same side of this debate. One who fervently believes that Americans should be allowed private ownership of all manner of weapons might be in favor of amending the Second Amendment. So might someone who is opposed to private gun ownership. It should prove to be an exciting and illuminating evening!

Please join us during Constitution Week for the Lewis Honors College's inaugural Oxford-style debate.

The mission of the Lewis Honors College is to better the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the world by helping students to explore their purpose, develop intellectually, and lead with integrity.